The image is a photograph showing details of the French artist Christian Lapie’s public installations in 2001 in the city of Ngaoundéré, capital of the Adamawa Region in Cameroon. The work consists of five modules composed of nine figures, ranging between 150 and 450cm each and laid in a semi-circular radius of 1000 cm. The pieces are made of wood and placed vertically in an upright position. The upper end is shaped like a head, giving each piece the appearance of a human silhouette. Arranged like a gathering of people dressed in local traditional attire, called boubou (a long, loose-fitting garment worn by both sexes in parts of Africa), the works are aligned in a semi-circular arc.
The work’s detailed structure is closely linked to its title Djaoulérou, which means "traditional space, place of meeting and reception". The artist echoes customs in a context where the relationship between traditional practices and Islam remains ambiguous. Islam provides an opportunity for certain members of local society to acquire privileged positions under the auspices of religion. Religion’s role in the political game has proven to be so important that post-colonial politicians have laboured to maintain control of the religious sphere in every region. Religion presents challenges for politicians in terms of governance and control. Maud Lasseur (2005, 95), echoing this sentiment, maintains that: “During the colonial period and under the regime of President Ahidjo (1960–1982), Christian missions were thus contained to the south of Cameroon so as not to hinder the Muslim aristocracy of the Far North or thwart the unifying political project of the first Cameroonian president”.
The monumental character of the work, the rhythm and movement suggested by forms treated with little attention to detail, the variations in volume and the different dimensions of each silhouette make the installation look both impressive and expressive. Each individual group of statues, displayed at the same time in different places in the city, shows how the "mysterious objects" made by a foreign artist present unfamiliar traits regarding the city’s socio-cultural imagination. The work breaks taboos: an unusual appearance that creates artistic experience, tradition and beliefs, which have become subject to manipulation and political propaganda within the society.
The work’s destruction reflects the fragility of a slavish society instrumentalized by politically motivated religious arguments in the 2002 legislative elections in Cameroon. The fact that a French artist has carried out an unusual and iconoclastic installation project in this city is seen as a provocation, particularly by the Muslim cultural authority. This religious and political authority occupies a very influential social position as "guardian of the temple" (custodian of traditions) and is in a position to incite people to commit acts of such magnitude. In addition to setting fire to the works and proceeding to uninstall them, public authorities definitively closed down the Franco-Cameroonian alliance of Ngaoundéré because of the social unrest the works provoked. This cultural centre for Franco-Cameroonian cooperation had supported the artist's installation project.
The act of vandalism perpetrated on Christian Lapie’s work exposes Cameroon’s national society in search of landmarks. Art, and particularly sculpture, has played an important role in expressing belief systems. The cosmogonic universe and the world view of the populations that have succeeded one another in this territory have been revealed through artistic representation. The bold production and reproduction of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geometric and imaginary forms is typical of these societies. As in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, art has helped what people see, think, imagine and believe (J.P. Notué, 2005). Because of the lack of critical understanding of their history and the changes they experienced, societies are confronted with major shocks that have an impact on their development. Among these shocks are an ambiguous relationship to religion. Its consequences are the religious and political manipulation that societies are sometimes subjected to. One historical reason for this is the attitude of missionaries who made no discernment in the positive values of the tradition and the absence of doctrine and deep convictions of these values (E. Mveng, 1985).
Cameroon’s colonial religious legacy is one of the most important sources of the ethical foundation of its society in the 21st century. The generalization of the religious profession of faith/conversion seems to have fostered a latent form of "alienation" among the urban society. There is a superficial knowledge of both the principles of modern culture and the traditional environment, two references whose slavish play of opposites have political stakes. In Cameroon, the policy of conviviality between Islam, other religions and local cultural practices implemented by Sultan Njoya in the Kingdom of Bamum presents elements of inspiration for a compelling form of social emancipation. The policy of inculturation and multi-confessionalism has favoured the cultural openness of society and preserved, for example, the sustainability of the region’s remarkable creative industry. Art, belief systems and politics are all values of cultural expression fundamental to society.
The work breaks taboos: the artistic experience created by its unusual appearance calls upon traditions and beliefs that have become subject to manipulation and political propaganda within the society.
- Mveng Engelbert. 1985, Histoire du Cameroun, tom 2, Yaoundé, Ed. CEPER.
- NOTUE Jean-Paul, TRIACA Bianca, 2005, Bandjoun, Trésors royaux du Cameroun, Milan, Ed. 5 continents.
- Maud Lasseur. 2005, in « www.cairn.info/revue-afrique-contemporaine-2005 ».
- Assako Assako PH.S. 2011, l’art au cameroun du XXe au début du XXIe siècle : étude des expressions sculpturales en milieu urbain, thèse de Doctorat/Ph.D. en histoire de l’art, Université de Yaoundé 1.
published February 2020